Liturgical Objects in Museums: Analogous to Musical Instruments?

The Metropolitan Museum has published its program of Concerts and Lectures for the 2011-2012 season.  One in particular caught my eye, because it seems linked to a topic discussed here a couple of days ago: the place in museums of religious ritual objects and how it isolates them from their proper context.

In October, the Met will offer a lecture “On Imprisoning Violins” presented by Jayson Kerr Dobney an Associate Curator and Administrator of the Met’s Department of Musical Instruments and Sean Avram Carpenter, described as co-founder of the Salome Chamber Orchestra. The lecture is described in the program:

In 1920 Dwight Partello died, leaving his important collection of violins to the Smithsonian Institution and sparking a national controversy about whether fine instruments should be kept in museums or used by performers. The Partello collection did not go to the Smithsonian, but, soon after, two Stradivari violins did enter the Met. This lecture examines the context of violin collecting and the ongoing tension between preservation and performance.

These are certainly at least partly analogous issues. Instruments are used to enact music in much the way liturgical objects are used to enact liturgy.

An article from a musical instrument forum describes some of the views aired in the dispute from the 1920s

As executors of his estate, Partello had named George W. White, President of the National Metropolitan Bank, and his “life long family friend,” Flora B. Thompson, with whom Partello had been very close in his last years. Partello’s daughters didn’t trust Thompson and charged that she had unduly influenced Dwight to leave his valuables to the Smithsonian instead of to his children. Carita was still in Germany, so it was left to Adeline and her husband, Arthur Abell, to contest the will.

Since her father’s testament seemed to be in order, Adeline and her husband decided that their best chance of recovering Partello’s violin collection was to convince the Smithsonian to denounce the gift as not in the public good. To this end, they rallied the musical community to their defense. Arthur Abell, who had been a music critic for more than 20 years and was therefore acquainted with all the great international musicians, was particularly effective in this part of the strategy. Word was spread through the music grapevine that Partello’s collection of 25 important instruments were about to be lost to musicians forever and that the best chance of preventing this calamity was to write letters in opposition.

The letters began to stream in. On October 27th, Fritz Kreisler wrote that “In my opinion it is wrong to place fine instruments of old masters in museums.” Not only does it deprive musicians of their use, argued Kreisler, but instruments stored in museums often seem to deteriorate. Like many other letter-writers to follow, he highlighted Paganini’s violin at the Museum of Genoa, “which in spite of great care became worm-eaten and utterly useless. . .”

Others who wrote included such luminaries as Leopold Auer, Eugene Ysaye, Walter Trammell, Jacques Thibaud, Franz Kneisel, Kubelik and Leopold Stokowski. The great conductor Arturo Toscanini wrote a letter in Italian, which (translated) included this memorable analogy: “To put rare violins in a museum and thus deprive them of their tone is like condemning valuable paintings to a cellar and depriving them of a light.” Along the same lines, Auer wrote that “it would be equivalent to shutting up a Caruso, or a Schumann-Heink in a glass case where they could be looked at but no longer heard.” Kubelik wrote that “there is a crying need of such master violins among artists of our day.”

The controversy was played out in public following an editorial by the NY Times columnist Richard Aldrich on Feb. 27, 1921, in which he stated that “the collection of fine violins is an injurious pastime” and that “the assemblage of fine violins for any other purpose than having them used for the purpose for which they were intended is an injury to the whole musical world.” Without mentioning Partello by name, Aldrich made it clear that he was deeply offended by the idea of leaving the instruments to the National Museum.

You can read Aldrich’s full column on the New York Times web site.

Thanks also to Eve Tushnet, who linked to my previous post on this topic. Her reflection “Mary, in the Glass Coffin of the Museum” is definitely worth reading.

Photograph by Wikipedia user “Husky” of a Stradivarius violin. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

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